Better than ever, the San Jose Sharks are "for real" Stanley Cup contenders

The scout was impressed. “Good team,” he said. He stopped, raised his eyebrows and repeated himself with emphasis. “Really good team,” he said. And he hadn’t even seen the San Jose Sharks at their best.

This was based on Monday night, when the Sharks played a defensive chess match in Detroit against the Red Wings, a 0-0 draw that wasn’t settled until Logan Couture scored and Antti Niemi made a crazy save in the shootout for a 1-0 victory.

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The Sharks went on to Boston and lost Thursday night, 2-1. But they dominated the Bruins, outshooting them 39-17; gave up the decisive goal when David Krejci scored in the final second of the third period; and became the last team in the NHL to lose in regulation this season.

They are 8-1-1, and they are for real. Go ahead and laugh. That’s fine. How many times have you read that over the years? How many times have the Sharks failed to live up to the hype? Hell, just last season, the Sharks started 7-0-0 and went winless in their next seven. They had to refresh their roster and push to make the playoffs.

But keep a few things in perspective: “For real” means they are legit contenders to win the Stanley Cup – anything bolder in October is balderdash – and just because the Sharks haven’t made the Cup final yet, let alone won a championship, doesn’t mean they haven’t been already. They are one of only two teams to have made the playoffs every season in the salary-cap era – the Wings, riding a 22-season streak, are the other – and they have made two conference finals in that span. They came within a game of a third last season. We all should underachieve so badly.

And look, just because they still have Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in leading roles doesn’t mean they are still the Sharks of old. Just because they have Couture and Joe Pavelski continuing to blossom doesn’t mean they are even Sharks 2.0 anymore. They have a blend of older stars late in their primes, younger stars early in their primes and more – more depth, more speed, more aggressiveness.

They have two top-10 special-teams units. They rank near the top 5-on-5. They have 14 players with a goal and 19 with a point. But perhaps the most meaningful early statistic is this: They lead the league in shots per game at 38.8 – three shots better than the next-best team, the Anaheim Ducks – while ranking second in shots against at 23.2. They are tilting the ice, peppering opponents in the offensive end.

“We want to go after teams,” Thornton said. “We want to smother teams.”

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The Sharks weren’t scoring enough and decided they were too slow last season. So coach Todd McLellan moved Brent Burns from defense to forward, and GM Doug Wilson added the speedy Raffi Torres and subtracted slower vets Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus and Douglas Murray before the trade deadline. Wilson added more speed and depth in Tyler Kennedy before the draft. Rookie forwards Matthew Nieto, 20, and Tomas Hertl, 19, made the team this fall.

Now the Sharks can roll four lines capable of skating and scoring, in front of a defense that includes Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who are blossoming as shutdown men and taking pressure off Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart, not to mention Niemi, who won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last season.

Torres hasn’t played because of a knee injury, but the Sharks are still noticeably speedier – and they are expected to get Torres back later this season. It could be like acquiring him at the deadline all over again.

“If we were going quick in the past, it kind of fell off as we got down a line or two and then pick up again, so there was a lot of hills and valleys throughout the game,” McLellan said. “Right now we’re fortunate that all the lines are playing a quick game.”

“That’s the big thing,” Thornton said. “We’re just really, really deep. In the past there might not have been the guys to hurt you on the third and fourth lines. But this year, guys can really bite you.”

The Sharks used to be more of an east-west, playmaking, puck-possession team. Now McLellan stresses north-south puck management and shot volume instead.

Come back hard defensively. Pressure the puck. Get it and send it up ice.

“Our defense moves the puck up to the forwards real quick, and our transition game’s really, really fast,” Thornton said. “We’re as quick as they come.”

Shoot it. Get the rebound.

“When you shoot it, you usually know where the puck’s going to end up,” Couture said. “You have that step on the defense. You can get there quicker.”

Shoot it again. Keep shooting.

“You can’t go out there looking for the perfect play every time,” Couture said. “You’ve got to shoot the puck. You watch highlights around the league, and there’s a lot of goals scored on second and third chances. That’s the way we’ve been scoring as well.”

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The evolution of the Sharks reflects the evolution of the NHL.

“I think that’s the way the game is going,” McLellan said. “Coming out of the [2004-05] lockout, you could delay and look for people and hold onto it a little bit longer. Teams have figured out how to defend that now, and you have to advance and try to stay ahead of the curve.”

Thornton, one of the best passers in hockey, still has the green light to be patient, slow up and look for a late man. But even he has adapted his game, and if there are late men, they better be moving.

“When we are playing a fast game, we tend to be on top of teams a little bit quicker,” McLellan said. “We tend to get more sustained attack time and hem teams in. And when we’re not, it’s a pretty even game and we’re scrambling around in our zone.

“I think the energy that’s expended in shifts can either be expended defending or on offense, and there’s really not much in between anymore. So if you can get on top of teams and use your energy offensively, it really backs them off, and we’ve been fortunate over the first load of games here that we’ve been able to do that.”

Seventy-two games to go, and maybe, just maybe, this time, four rounds.


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